The Shepherd is present and loving and good.
But today we are city, and a world around, drenched in sorrow. Some of that sorrow lies at the feet of those killed, Martin and Lingzi and Krystle and Sean. Some of that sorrow arises from the thought of those physically injured. Some of that sorrow dimly recognizes the many others, near and far, harmed in other less visible ways. Some of that sorrow kindles anger at the video image of assassins who lingered to view the potential effects of unspeakable actions on fellow humans. This weekend we are a people drenched in sorrow.
We are also a University working through sorrow. Monday began with brunch and celebration, and ended with terror. Our staff opened the chapel later for the throngs walking, T-less, by. Water, refreshment, prayer, counsel, they gave. One runner came very cold and was shrouded with a clergy gown, all we had to offer, a shepherd’s outfit. Tuesday brought us to the plaza, come evening, in vigil, to honor and reflect. Wednesday, in this chapel, and also at other hours in other settings, gathered us for ordered worship, prayer, music, liturgy, Eucharist and sermon. Thursday we heard the President, on a familiar theme, ‘running the race set before us’. Friday at home we watched televised news. Saturday we listened for the musical succor of Handel’s beautiful Messiah, right here. Tomorrow we will again gather for a memorial service, for our deceased BU student, Lu Lingzi. But today is Sunday, when we come to church, to pray, sing, and hear the Word. Quietly, now, as a visible congregation in the pews and as a virtual congregation in the region, we might want to allow our Gospel to help us, to speak a pastoral word to us, to live in us, in three ways.
The Gospel of John, more than any other ancient Christian writing, and in odd contrast to its prevalent misunderstanding across the continent today, knew the necessity of nimble engagement of current experience, and the saving capacity to change, in the face of new circumstances. The community of this Gospel could do so because they had experienced the Shepherd, present, ‘here’, hic et nunc. In distress, we hold onto divine presence, on word, the Shepherd– here.
Two BU students were maimed on Monday. One survived, in part because an Iraqi war veteran ran to her, held her, acknowledged her shock, staunched her bleeding, kept her from focusing on the carnage at hand, and made it his business to be present to her, on Boylston street. His experienced prediction later that evening, that she would “make it”, proved true. The Shepherd is here, present, in the shepherding acts of people like him who put on the equivalent of a pastor’s robe, to aid others.
It is not trite and not redundant repeatedly to honor the first responders, those first present. It is faith, good faith, and theology, good theology. God has no hands but yours.
In quieter hours, we may simple say, “God is here”, “the Shepherd is here”, referring only to the brute, undeniable experience of breathing, of life, of something, of something not nothing. But in sorrow, and in the distress causing sorrow, we know presence through the Shepherd. Next to us, it may be, we hear a voice: “Hold my hand. Look down not out. Focus on my eyes. That pain in your leg is a good sign. Breathe in and out. I am here”.
We are a community devoted in witness to the One in the stained glass behind you, the Shepherd. It is a good and healthy thing to enter a gothic nave whose form is a thousand years old, an Indiana limestone chapel built to last another thousand years, with a form of worship as ancient and historic as it is beautiful and true, and music from the ages, and readings 2000 years in use, all in a place of graceful space. A physical recollection that we are not the first, nor will we be the last, to face inexplicable horror. I do not know of a week when one does not need that, but this week, in particular, we do. John’s community had none of that in Ephesus in 90ad. They had only voice. Speaking, and hearing. They found that in speaking of the Shepherd: ‘he is here’. ‘I am…’ That is all, still, we have, the voice. Utterance. ‘I am…’ The ‘here’ is in the hearing. Can you hear that? It begs to be heard, here.
It is an old word. The Shepherd is here.
The Gospel brings a second old word. One writer said he used the old short words. ‘I know the other ones, the big words, but the short ones say it better.’ Love. God so loved the world, to give God’s only Son. I try to remember that when a boy who looks like my son did at age 8 is taken. It is as if God walked over, and put a hand on my shoulder, and said, ‘You know, I do understand. Yes. I had a son once, too.’ The reason the community of faith, John’s church, could hear the ‘here’ of the Shepherd is that they had experienced his love. With them, I am a Christian more for the cross than for the empty tomb. The Gospel of John knew the reality of love, and called love God. Love is God, said the later letter bearing the name of John.
But it is a strange, somewhat unfamiliar kind of love. (The gospel makes the familiar strange, and the strange familiar.) Not the love of family or kindred, those with whom you watched TV on Friday. Not the love of lover and beloved, to whom you rightly repaired on Monday. Not even the religiously frequent reference, across the globe, to a principle, idea or virtue. Ours today is rather a love that gives, and gives of self, which they knew in Ephesus, and we know today, in loving hands. God has no hands, none, but yours. We all need loving hands.
To recall love, when you see others, in brutality, shredded by insidious evil, you will need to pronounce love in life. It is also repeatedly said, not tritely, that the only thing evil needs to succeed is the inattention and inaction of good people. This passage, ‘the Father and I are one’, created a new religion–in love. The verse is usually thought to convey a heightened Christology, the raising of Jesus to divine status. But for the first century Christians it arguably may have meant the very opposite, the lowering of God to human status. It meant the lowering of the Father, not the raising of the Son. It meant, well, love. The Shepherd loves, is loving, is love.
Love is God. That is all we have of God, as we breathe and listen and live. Love means love of self, family, kin, but also of neighbor, other, friend, but also, remarkably, of enemy. Now John does not get quite that far. I am not sure that I have. But the Christian Gospel as a whole does, and more. I will try to remember that when I feel my anger welling up, or when I am tempted to disparage groups for the behavior of individuals, or when I want a faster solution to a thorny problem.
That is why you come to church every week, to be prepared for love. You cannot develop a worldview, a religious perspective, a depth of faith, or a disciplined life, in the 3 minutes following a bombing. You have to get started a lot earlier in order to have, in crisis, the nourishment, the power, you will need, really to live. Love means taking responsibility. Love means taking responsibility. And taking responsibility means finding, soon, a community wherein you can know and show meaning, belonging, empowerment, where you can learn from others to pray, to tithe, to keep faith.
I encourage you to continue in ways many have already begun, to find effective modes of help for those well beyond our community who have been hurt, one way or another. A card, a note, a check, a gift, a prayer—we all have things we can do to lean forward and help those harmed. One of our students is active in bringing a blood bank to campus in the next few days. It is healthy and it is helpful, in many directions, to find one thing or two things creatively to do, to bring some good to bear in the face of tragic violence. So you will don a shepherd’s gown, hoist a shepherd’s crook, live a shepherd’s life, for the moment, in love.
It is an old word. The Shepherd is love.
Here is one other old word. Good. The Shepherd is good.
But, let us be frank. There is a kind of nihilism abroad today, which is not good. You can hear it, in the word ‘whatever’: and see it in inebriation, in amoral sexual practice, in materialism, in incapacity for human communication, in incapacity for moral discernment. These features of current life, exploding all about us on a daily basis, are just not good.
As our fellow preacher the Rev. John Holt, of Osterville, wrote two weeks ago:
I’m troubled. Really troubled. Disturbed because compassion is scarce. Too often, we live in a “what’s in it for me” world.
You remember, from last Sunday, my friend describing life, in one word as ‘good’, and in two words as ‘not good’. Well, no early Christian document surpasses John in plumbing the depths of that duality. A bright Monday, bombs. A sunny Patriots Day, carnage. A glorious marathon, death. As my teacher Robert McAfee Brown said, ‘This is God’s world. But is a crummy one. We have to live with both realities.’ I remember Anglican Bishop Hapgood, circa 1975, facing a group of idealists and saying, ‘Go ahead, keep your dreams, be dreamers. Just remember that others dream, too, of gulags, and genocide, and terror.’
From this pulpit four years ago, (Nov 29, 2009), we tried to be alert to the probability that, at some point, another nineleven would befall us. How little we knew how close it would be, both in time and in space.
The best of days, the highest of moments, the most charmingly gracious of cityscapes, the culmination of the American experiment on Patriots Day–trashed by hateful, killing violence. When another takes what you hold dear, count precious, think lovely, and bombs it, you cannot avoid anger, and the sorrow at the heart of anger.
Some may wonder whether anything religiously cast, any preachment, can carry any truth, any good. Religion, like the weather, is just so mixed–good and bad and other.
One response: Do you have good religion, or bad, asked the spiritual? Are you putting on that shepherding robe, that pastoral gown, to fend off the cold?
Unamuno wrote, “ Warmth, warmth, warmth. We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is the night that kills, it is the frost.”
Religion that brings good relationships can bring much good. You can see and hear that right here in the pews of Marsh Chapel. Come and join us!
Our passage about the Shepherd shepherded into experience something new, over time, the relational community of God. Yes, we are monotheists, but not really fully so. God is not One, for us. God is Three, or, at least, Three in One. That is, the good Shepherd, is good– in relationship. God is in relationship, with God. We might want to think about that, as we measure our relationships into the future. ‘The Father and I are One’ was step toward Chapter 14 and the Spirit, and beyond that to Nicaea. Ours are the hands with which to touch, hold, greet and honor.
By the way. I do not believe in a God who wills that some are hurt and others spared. Who would worship such a God? I see rather random chance in life, both freedom to will and the freeing of the will, to be present, to love, and to do the good. Jan and I did not turn left on Boylston, Monday at 2:30, we went around the back way. Not because we are more beloved, smarter, or more faithful. No, random, just random. Rain falls on the just and unjust. But through it all: There is good, there is good, there is good in every day. Part of that good is found in relationship, blessed by the relational God of John 10. Some of that good is right here in Boston, ‘the Hub’–in relationship. Hugs in cold of First Night, cheers for the music come July 4, waves to the rowers come Head of the Charles, and, yes, next year, celebration come Patriots Day. Connected in relationship.
No orthodox Bostonian
Is lonely or dejected,
For everyone in Boston
With everyone’s connected.
For Boston’s not a capital,
And Boston’s not a place;
Rather I feel that Boston is
The perfect state of grace.
It is an old word. The Shepherd is good.
How then will you live?
Will you find your way, through the crowd and the rubble, to the Shepherd—who is here, who is love, who is good?
We will want to live with presence, love and goodness. Thankfully, from Monday itself, we have a shining example of people modeling dimensions of healthy spirituality, of the runners and the race (a metaphor not unknown to the biblical mind by the way—Psalm 19, 1 Cor 9, Hebrews 12). I picture all the runners practicing months and weeks. I see the lacing of the running shoes. I hear the starting whistle and the throng surging forward. We saw at Kenmore, the brightly attired elderly man, the young guy with blue hair, the student running in a tuxedo, the troop from a nearby college ROTC program, the woman running—as so many—in memory, the folks in wheel chairs, the straining forward, by mile 25, of striving, disciplined energy. They all are models for us of running the spiritual race and finishing the spiritual course. We can lace up and run, too, in our own ways. God’s goodness, love and presence beckon us onward.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel
Text from Prayers of the People:
Hear our voices:
The voices that are hoarse from shouting,
The voices that are unsteady from weeping,
The voices that are sharp with anger,
The voices that are quivering with fear,
The voices that are dull with weariness,
The voices that are quiet with uncertaintiy,
And the voices that have fallen silent.
You, Good Shepherd, you know all of us and call us each by name. We have come to know the names of some of our flock, our community, our city, who have been taken from us by violence this week:
Martin, Lingzi, Krystle, and Sean
We mourn their loss and we pray for all those around the world who are victims of violence, for those whose names we do not know, but who are known by you.
While violence can tear people from our arms all too soon, we are confident Lord, that nothing, nothing and no one can snatch them from your loving hand.
We are all called to follow you, and this morning we give thanks for those who follow your call by embodying your shepherding, those first responders who run into danger to rescue the injured, those nurses and doctors who knit wounds and bring healing, and those members of law enforcement who help to keep us safe from the dangers that surround us.
Good Shepherd, this week our thoughts turn to the green pastures of the Common and the Public Garden, the still waters of the Charles river, this city of Boston which we love so deeply. This week our beloved city has also felt like the valley of the shadow of death. Good Shepherd, restore our souls so that we again may feel rest, safety, and delight in this our beloved city.
And Good Shepherd, even though it is difficult, even though it is so difficult, we ask for your grace this morning to be able to pray for the lost sheep, for those who have wandered far from us, for those who have perpetrated violence against us. We know that you pursue every lost sheep with your grace, love, and mercy. Give us the strength to follow you so that we may do the same, so that we may forgive those who trespass against us.
And when our words fail, when we lose our voice, we are grateful that you, Jesus Christ, have given us familiar words which we can fall back upon to pray: